Binding Where God Hasn’t (Part 2)
Those of us familiar with the history of our reform in early America will recall one of the mottos of the Stone-Campbell Movement that pleaded, “In doctrine, unity; in opinion, liberty; in all things, charity (love).” While our reform sought to liberate Christians from the bondage of creeds, confessions of faith, and any other man-made institution (e.g., synods, presbytery), it also acknowledged the Bible as our only source of authority in matters of faith. This is a reasonable enough goal.
Where we as a people have struggled to find common ground has been in the realm of biblical interpretation. For example, if the Scriptures are silent on something, do we have the liberty to add it as an exercise of faith or is such silence restrictive? There’s also the positive law interpretation whereby anything expressly stated was to be followed while anything not was prohibited. Where we fall on these issues has determined what followed, and with folks falling on each side of these, there has been division resulting from such interpretations.
Alexander Campbell believed, and I would tend to agree, that creeds and confessions were born from human reasoning, inferences, and deductions from Scripture. He also contended that two men could read the same text and come to contradictory conclusions based on inferences. In churches of Christ, our biblical interpretive method has usually been summed up as direct commands, necessary inferences, and authoritative examples.
As to the first of these, if the Bible directly commands that we do something, we should do it or not do it depending on which is stated. On the second, if a logical inference can be arrived at, then we must follow such. The final one looks to the approval of God based on how believers behaved, and if they acted commendably by God, we could safely follow suit.
This isn’t a perfect system of interpretation per se. Campbell believed that since two people could conclude differently on the same text that “the prejudices of education, habits of thinking, modes of reasoning, different degrees of information, the influences of a variety of passions and interests, and above all, the different degrees of strength of human intellect” were at play and could not be trusted (Christian Baptist 2 [March 1825]: 179–80). I agree more so that direct commands and authorized examples are rather safe to follow, but I would not contend that we ought to bind inferences. Why?
Sadly to say, more people than few lack a knowledge of the historical, linguistic, and social background of the Bible. Even sadder to confess is that not everyone has a basic understanding in logic, so inferences aren’t reasonable and certainly not logical. I would even count some of my own, despite how much I labor to understand the Bible, as liable to correction. For this reason, it should be that we receive one weak in faith, but not to dispute (Romans 14:1).